Many farming families struggle to talk about succession and the conversation never really gets anywhere until one day it’s too late. We asked Heather Wildman, family facilitator and managing director at Saviours Associates, for advice.
The earlier you start discussing succession, the greater the number of options available to you.
Starting early will also ensure everyone in the family knows what to expect and can make plans accordingly.
This means being open and honest as soon as possible: Think ahead and share what you’re thinking so everyone has time to plan. You only have one life, so what do you want to do with it?
It’s all about timing, tone and language. You know your family members so you will know when is a good – or a bad – time to broach a tricky subject.
Your dad might be most open on a Sunday night after he’s had dinner and a beer, or perhaps in the car on the way to market, for example. Avoid doing it when people are tired or cranky, though.
Another opportunity is when a third party visits, such as the farm’s accountant or business adviser. Asking to talk about where the farm is going can be a way to start the conversation.
Someone entering the business is an opportune time too – perhaps a school leaver is starting in some way, or there is a marriage.
Also consider who in the family is good at bringing people together. Often, the mother is the key person to sit everyone down together – so talk to that person.
Understand individuals’ feelings and needs. This is key to breaking down walls as emotion plays a huge part in decision-making
Understand individuals’ feelings and needs. This is key to breaking down walls as emotion plays a huge part in decision- making and in action or in-action.
Try to find out why someone does not want to talk, or is being defensive. Approach this in a caring and respectful way which acknowledges what they contribute to the business.
For example, you could say; ‘I’m so proud of what you’ve achieved, we would be shattered if something happened to you – can we talk about this and make sure we have provisions in place’? Or ‘Dad, I’ve asked a couple of times about succession and I can see it upsets you and you shut down the conversation – I’d like to know how you feel and how we can talk about this’.
Often though, it’s a case of being patient and drip-feeding until someone starts to open up.
Once you do get people round a table, try to take the heaviness out. For example, decide you’re all going to make a fun evening of it with food and drink and have an open brainstorming session where you talk about possibilities, dreams and ideas, rather than old disagreements.
Remember to keep the bigger picture in mind – the long-term future and happiness of you and your family is paramount. Being aware of what everyone wants and their hopes for the future is key – the ongoing success of the farm may be part of this or perhaps selling up will be the best option.
Shape Your Farming Future is a series of informative and practical guides looking in-depth at issues pertinent to farmers when planning for the future.